I‘m still haunted by the time I was pulled over by Officer Santiago.
The location was Corte Madera, California. The year was 2004 — half my lifespan ago.
It happened at an intersection near a well-known local mall called “The Village.”
I was 16 years old, fresh off my learner’s permit, looking for any excuse to hit the open road.
My silver Honda Civic and I were cruising.
Wide with four lanes, the quarter-mile stretch we were driving had a Highway Patrol station at its midpoint.
Officer Santiago of the Twin Cities Police Department was perched nearby in his patrol car, watching.
Sirens were a less familiar noise to me back then than they are now.
It would be a few more years before I could call myself a survivor of Police harassment.
However, that day, the issue of race in the equation for me became nuanced and reflects a reality less spoken in today’s discussion about policing.
Let me rewind.
I am an 80s baby, born the son of a Black-Jamaican father from Westmorland, Jamaica, and a white-Jewish mother from Throggs Neck, Bronx.
My brothers “A” & “J”, every six years my senior, kept me hanging around despite our age gap.
We grew up in Marin County, and have collectively lived across Hayward, San Francisco, Oakland, Union City, and San Jose.
Existing as any ethnic combination in the United States is a nuanced experience — and skin tone plays a role.
My brothers and I are darker than most mixed-race Black people we know.
Our experiences with law enforcement, befittingly, have produced a higher percentage of constitutional violations, imprisonment threats, and public humiliations than those suffered by our white peers.
Court sentences towards Black men in America
Police, as with court sentences, are known to be disproportionately punitive towards Black men in America vis any other demographic in the country.
Further complicating our dispositions, double-consciousness accompanied our melanated skin tones.
Coined by W.E.B. DuBois in 1897, “double-consciousness” is an omnipresent conflicting sense of self that Dubois believed Black people in America acutely suffer.
It perpetuates as perceptions of self (I am a daughter, a sister, a professional) conflict with internalized racist perceptions expressed by others (I am a threat, an affirmative action placement, a n*gger).
Children are impressionable, and Black children like my brothers and I were no exception.
Racism sliced through our amoeba-like egos faster than defendants cut plea deals. We saw our joyful, imperfect selves. Some white people saw only our blackness.
We, in turn, saw it too.
We grew familiar with blackness being undervalued.
We listened to the First Lady of the United States label Black juvenile offenders “Super-Predators”.
We watched innocent Black bodies being executed by Police without penalty.
We read newspaper columns offering sympathy to the so-called ‘misguided’ mass murderer Dylan Roof.
Who prayed with and subsequently murdered nine innocent Black churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 25, 2015.
Mr. Roof, a white man, was taken into custody without incident before being fed a hamburger by Shelby Police.
Meanwhile, Black suspects of far more innocuous or non-existent crimes are lynched (R.I.P. Breonna Taylor).
As for all moments in time, context matters.
In the same year the Black Panther Party in Oakland, CA closed its doors, my brothers first opened their brown eyes.
Local and federal exclusionary tactics that were implemented to restrict Black homeownership began dramatically shifting Bay Area demographics.
Racial tension fertilized the ground we walked.
We would only come to understand the context in which our Black lives existed after our experiences with white people shaped us.
Most kids get passed down belongings from their siblings; I got passed down tales of racism.
My brothers would come home from high school and tell me about the older white kids who hung a noose from a pickup truck to terrorize them.
They cried in frustration about the football coach who hurled racial slurs at them during practice.
Late-night phone calls rang our hallway each time Police would detain my brothers among a sea of teenagers while breaking up parties.
In my mind, what awaited me were the Police Officers that released a K-9 on my brothers, drew firearms on my brothers.
And told my brothers that the only reason they didn’t shoot my brothers was that “the gun jammed”.
This type of trauma white people in America do not experience and struggle if at all try, to understand — a phenomenon commonly known as “White Privilege”.
As my voice started to deepen and my growth spurt hit, tales of racism became a reality.
The first time I saw a pistol I was a 14-year-old child, staring down its barrel at a Police Officer as a result of mistaken identity.
Police fleeing crime scenes.
Another evening, I was parked outside a 7-Eleven when a Sheriff’s Deputy shined his spotlight on my car, without consent searched my vehicle, tested Advil for amphetamines, threatened me with arrest, and ultimately fled his crime scene.
Not a uniquely American issue, bouncers refused me at a nightclub in Berlin, Germany because I was Black on “Black Night” (a tone-deaf version of “Hip-Hop night”).
I learned at age 18 that racists profit from Black culture (footnote: Donald Sterling).
The racism my brothers and I experienced came from white civilians and Police.
But the Police encounters were more likely to have fatal consequences.
Our fear seemed to inspire their satisfaction; our rebellion would fuel their anger.
My encounter with Officer Santiago was different for one important reason: Officer Santiago had a thick Latino accent.
Violating no traffic laws, I cruised past Officer Santiago’s patrol car.
The heightened awareness that accompanies many Black males’ proximity to Police kicked in.
Driving while black
On this day, I would learn my first lesson in Driving While Black after Officer Santiago and his partner veered their car behind mine, and hailed me to pull over.
After asking for and receiving my license, registration, and proof of insurance, Officer Santiago popped the question:
Officer Santiago: “Any drugs in the car?”
Me: “Drugs? I’m going to the store. What do you mean by drugs? You can’t just pull me over and ask me if I have drugs in the car for no reason. Why are you pulling me over?”
What Officer Santiago said next struck me.
Officer Santiago: “You were racial profiling.”
The sheer content shock of Officer Santiago’s statement eclipsed the backwardness of its form. I was “racial profiling?” A Latino Police Officer just confided in me that he pulled me over because I was “racial profiling?”
At that moment, for a moment, my world turned upside-down.
Me: “I am racial profiling? Officer… Isn’t your last name, Santiago?”
Investigated because I was black
Officer Santiago began to stammer a reply before his partner reeled him back to their patrol car.
He recognized that Officer Santiago made a fatal mistake by admitting to doing what the two of them had agreed to do already: investigate me because I was Black.
I was a mixture of confused, infuriated, and disgusted.
What Officer Santiago meant to say is that he was racial profiling. I, on the other hand, was Black (and apparently able to string a sentence together).
The first lesson in Driving While Black: don’t drive while Black.
But how could a Latino officer pull me over for being Black? Latinos are confronted with biases, xenophobia, and stereotypes perpetuated about them in the United States of America.
Latino friends and I have traded stories about being profiled as “thieves” in department stores, “drug dealers” while driving and “unacceptable” boyfriends according to “liberal” white fathers.
Even before the current occupant of the White House was elected to office, the United States hasn’t exactly warmly welcomed immigrants crossing its southern border.
There must be something fundamental to the institution of Policing.
Something is wrong with policing in America
And/or Officer Santiago’s Department (and wrong with wider society) in order for Officer Santiago, a Latino man, to pull me over for being Black.
Yes, there are vestiges of institutional racism that law and law enforcement were in-part founded upon.
But the case of Officer Santiago viewed in the prism of current events tells me that the institution of policing as we know it is self-destructive, harmful to society, and in many cases ought to be rendered obsolete.
The moment cities and counties grant law enforcement officials authority to regulate community members’ conduct.
And encourage them to do so vigilantly — seeds of corruption are planted.
Participants in Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment needed only be given the title of “Prison Guard” to turn tyrannical towards their “Prisoner” counterparts.
The fact of the matter remains that everyday people given arbitrary authority under a united policing banner will band together in disdain towards those they mean to “dominate”.
Racism compounds and hones corruption (e.g. Black neighborhoods are grossly over-policed), but human psychology causes it.
From the moment Officer Santiago received his gun and badge.
A culture of injustice.
He was swept into a culture that trained him to do exactly what he did when I came into his crosshairs: to stretch the boundaries of his authority, profile and intercept “suspicious” Black men who do not appear to belong.
Ex-Officers Keung, Lane, and Tou of the Minneapolis Police Department stood idly while ex- Officer Derek Chauvin placed his full body weight.
On George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
Next to an ignited SUV exhaust pipe until he died from asphyxiation after calling out to his dead mother for help.
Think about that for a moment.
George Floyd’s murder was either a hit squad, the most tragic case of diffusion of responsibility, or both.
Assuming for the moment Mr. Floyd’s killing was not premeditated by all officers involved, then a monumental glitch in humanity felt globally took place on May 25, 2020.
Psychologists would say that Groupthink occurs when a group of people makes irrational decisions motivated by the urge to conform, or belief that dissent is impossible.
In the case of Police Departments, it is understandable how the most callous, ruthless, dangerous, and experienced Officers.
Tend to set the tone for the rest when all Officers are taught, from their early days in the academy, that any confrontation is a potential life-or-death scenario.
Warrior mentality mixed with conformity renders protocol irrelevant.
Officer Santiago wasn’t “Protecting and Serving” by pulling me over because I was Black.
As the junior Officer of the pair, he was complying.
A tool to break conformity exists — punishment.
Police Officers harbor zero superpowers shielding them from the worst manifestations of neurological phenomena discussed herein.
Yet, they have wide latitude to stop, frisk, arrest, and kill people despite them.
When incidents of Groupthink, stereotyping or racism lead to Police killings, future episodes cannot be prevented by training in a classroom; but they can be reduced by training the mind to desist, “or else”.
Officer Santiago was not fired from the Twin Cities Police Department after he violated my rights; he was protected by the Blue Wall of Silence.
Beyond being shielded by their peers, Police Officers are protected by the law in ways that are of paramount concern.
Qualified Immunity allows cops to shoot-to-kill, anyone, they reasonably fear may be an imminent threat to causing them, or somebody else, serious bodily harm.
The issue is written in blood in the definition: fear.
Fear is subjective.
Fear is fed by stereotypes, gender-norms, ignorance, and racism.
Fear is why 41 bullets were pulled from the corpse of Amadou Diallo after Officers of the New York Police Department allegedly “mistook him for a rape suspect” on February 4, 1999.
Fear is the word echoing across courtrooms in the country prior to “not guilty” verdicts being entered on behalf of defendants in cases of officer-involved shootings.
The doctrine of Qualified Immunity is bigotry’s fatal loophole into our criminal justice system.
And Congress must act to end Qualified Immunity on a national scale immediately.
We face an institutional Police problem in America.
The above diagnoses cannot be explained away by a “few bad apples” theory.
We cannot “fire” our way out of a mess that has been perpetuated by putting Band-Aid solutions on shotgun wounds.
But we can fix it.
A bold reimagining of public safety can happen.
We can demand that politicians defund, whether entirely or in-part, Police, and Sheriff Departments.
And reinvest in specialized community services that better keep people healthy and safe.
Divvying up the overly broad mandates of Police and Sheriff Departments among multiple agencies.
Each serving niche public functions, if executed thoughtfully, will establish a natural system of checks and balances.
Balance restores order.
Order ushers in trust in our communities.
For democracy to thrive, not a single soul can operate above the law.
The Constitution of the United States was written on the premise that all people are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, including Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Those who violate, be it a Police Officer, a President, or a slave-owning Founding Father memorialized in statue form, must be held accountable, or else our Great American Experiment will fail.
Officer Santiago is not special.
He was just a regular man swept up by a broken system.
And for that reason, I forgive him.